chanson de mer
Boarding a boat to cross a stretch of water, however wide and wild, leaves you with a taste of adventure in the very first place. It even feels like a game around the island. Opposite “the bay of mud” as it was once christened by the Vikings, the only urban settlement on its east side, lies another, far less populated island, that seems to call you from afar. Dominated by its Wart, (main hill), head-dressed with two TV masts, it shelters the island’s main port. No wonder why men have used the Sound as a fantastic anchoring, rendez-vous point as long as man can remember… MV Leirna was waiting quietly on Sunday morning. Her earliest crossing on Sunday begins at 1030. The very first weekend of November, draped in shameless blue crowns my grasshopper (or should I refine it to waterhopper) spirit. What a day for it! Islanders cross and meet with their inquisitive eyes, always looking to recognise you on either side of the Sound. There are two smiling at me as we briefly meet. We exchange a few words of friendship and go our ways – theirs, in the town – as my impatience to be re-united with my friend on the other side grows.
Only fifteen minutes separate us.
A few grey seals play hide and seek around the boat before we leave.
Earlier on, I watched the lifeboat leave its base on the other side of Victoria Pier.
Its skyline somehow melts in that sea of blue. The SW’lies only whisper in the middle of the Sound. A guillemot in winter plumage paddles happily in the harbour. The craft slowly moves away from its urban terminal. My adventure is set. The town looks impressive from the water. A last look over my shoulder before my eyes look to the much coveted side… The sun shines on my face at 2 o’clock and refracts warmth on the water. Soon I recognise this friendly shore and man-made rocky breakwater that shelters the “home” terminal. I know my friend waits for me by the carpark.
I have an affinity with that small island; it seems to be one of those cradles of precious connections. Within minutes, eyes and smiles meet and a short drive to a well-kept secret garden begins. My mission for the day will begin after a cup of tasty coffee (or rocket fuel, continental style!) and a tour of the estate gets under way. I love the place. It has its own shore, pier, boat shed and fabulous greenhouse around the family home.
As soon as we gaze at the old stony pier covered with barnacles, redshanks and ringed plovers fly off in a flurry of high-pitched calls, flushed by our voices. A well camouflaged common seal, somewhat oblivious to our presence, turns its head to meet our eyes. It does not stay dry very long.
My imagination begins to run wild. what if stones really speak? They might tell you those ancient booths once served as fishmerchants’ stores where trade in kind took place… They would take you back maybe as far as the hanseatic times, when islanders would trade in fish for gin or tobacco – socks for bread and linen… Wool for pistol or gun powder. Any dwelling with a first floor was called a Haa – a laird’s (landlord’s) house, a place with stature. A blue kayak lies on the grass by the gate. Others are locked inside the shed.
But what mission might you think?
Yes, I crossed the water with a precise mission in mind, that of helping my friend with mending a small dry stone wall. Locally, we call this stanedaekin. Little did I know of the size of the job… Restricted to a flowerbed, I smiled once I was fully explained. Although it did not look big at all, stanedaekin requires patience and time among other things. I was taught the art by Jim, a local stone mason from my part of the (main) island when I was connected with another island, Mousa . There, I took part in the reconstruction of an old daek (dry stone wall) blown up by a shipwreck… Two years were necessary to complete the job. Grand learning curve whilst falling in love with such art. Stones are amazing, as well as the main building material since man eventually over-exploited the local wood beyond beliefs… Did you know fuel poverty dates back to the time of the late Stone Age on this old rock? From the moment man began to burn peat (turf) as a substitute for wood, he had already reached a point of no return… Walking back to the house filled my heart with spirit. My little job occupied us for a good part of the day. Resilient in the face of a challenge, I endeavoured to give it my best. A dry stone wall reminds me of a 3-D jigsaw. Each stone must sit without wobbling. Its shape and size determines its choice of position. So we turned them round and round. My critical eye became fussy as afternoon overrode morning. A good puzzle if you know what I mean!
In any case, my friend served lunch by mid-afternoon, as I was still fiddling with the quasi-finished work. By the time we sat at table, satisfaction filled my heart. A definite improvement to the flowerbed was achieved, we giggled, as we sipped our soup.
Sunset kicks in early on this latitude in November.
I would return with the 1600 ferry slashing through the Sound at dusk.
A day well spent on an island filled with warmth and friendship.
My friend drove me back to our morning meeting point. A stronger SW’ly breeze would meet me half-way through the stretch of water. At this time in late afternoon, curlews fly low above water to reach their roost. The air turns crisp and much saltier… Lights from the town begin to glow. The urban settlement turns a ghost place. Time to go home by the hearth.
I love island hospitality. My grasshopper spirit grows from strength to strength.